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Alexander Severus

(1 October 208 - 21 March 235 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Alexander Severus
Name

Marcus Iulius Gessius Bassianus Alexianus (od 221 roku n.e. Marcus Aurelius Alexander Caesar)

Ruled as

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus

Reign

11 March 222 – 21 March 235 CE

Born

1 October 208 CE

Died

21 March 235 CE

Coin of Alexander Severus

Alexander Severus (Alexander Severus), also known as Alexian Bassianus (Alexianus Bassianus) was born on October 1, 208 in Emesa (present-day Syria) and was the last emperor of of the Sever family. On the throne of Rome, he replaced his cousin, Elagabalus, who died as a result of a conspiracy. The reign of Alexander Severus marks a new period in the history of Rome – the crisis of the third century – almost 50 years of civil wars, invasions and the collapse of the economy.

He took the surname Severus when in 218 CE. he was adopted by his 14-year-old cousin, Emperor Heliogabalus. In 222 CE Elagabalus, whose moral excesses and despotic whims made very unpopular, was murdered on the initiative of Severus’ mother – Julia Mammea. In the same year, Alexander, who had already held the title of Caesar, was recognized as Roman Emperor (the last of the Severus dynasty). Alexander was only thirteen years old when he officially took over and the actual rule was in the hands of his mother Julia Mammei and his influential grandmother, Julia Maesa – who played an important role also under its predecessor. It was she who brought Elagabala to the throne of Rome with the help of the 3rd Gallica legion.

Reign

Alexander’s reign, peaceful and composed in nature, was a time of prosperity and internal order. The irrepressible despotism of Elagabalus, which was the cause of his downfall, forced Alexander’s guardians – his mother and grandmother, and the senators who supported them, to apply stricter educational methods to the young ruler. As a result, even after reaching the age of majority, Aleksander was strongly influenced by his carers and advisers. They tried to change the country’s internal policy, sharing power with the senate, and taking away numerous privileges from the raging military at that time. The Senate, which had a façade function for its predecessors, has once again become one of the centers of state power.

The ruler’s advisers were led by the well-known and respected lawyer Ulpian Domitius, who was to raise the morale and quality of the social life of the Empire. Among his advisers was also the famous Roman senator and historian Cassius Dio, who, according to some sources, appointed the emperor’s advisory council with 16 senators. He was also to form a council of fourteen at praefectus urbi, the members of which were in charge of affairs in the individual 14 districts of Rome. In addition, during the reign of Alexander, excessive luxury and extravagance were reduced in the imperial court.

The young emperor, supported by a body of advisers, introduced monetary reforms. Upon ascending the throne, Alexander reduced the amount of silver in the denar from 46.5% to 43%, reducing the weight from 1.41 to 1.30 grams. Then in 229 C.E. in turn, he increased the amount of silver to 45%, which was a weight of 1.46 grams. A year later, he reduced the amount of base metal in the denar to increase the amount of silver – this was 50.5% and 1.5% respectively.
In addition, during Severus’ reign taxes were lowered, and literature, art and science were supported by the authorities.

In terms of religion, Alexander was considered a man with an open and tolerant mind. The story of Augustus mentions that Alexander was tolerant of Christians, as evidenced by Alexander’s order to build a temple dedicated to Christ. Ultimately, however, the sanctuary was not built, because the emperor was disgusted with the arrogant attitude of pagan priests. In addition, the emperor agreed to build a synagogue in Rome, in which, with his permission, the so-called “Severus scroll” (Codex Severi), containing the Torah.

Coin with the image of Julia Maesa – grandmother of Aleksander Sever and Heliogabal. She played a great role during the reign of both her grandchildren.

Alexander also tried to remove the army, especially the praetorians, from influencing the government, which was not easy. The first victim of this fight was Ulpian himself, whom the soldiers murdered as early as 223 CE.
The emperor largely supported soldiers who could appoint in their wills the persons entitled to the inheritance (as opposed to civilians) and liberate slaves. In addition, he tried to secure the property of the soldiers who took part in the campaigns.

His mother, known for her lust for power and riches, contributed to the emperor’s unpopularity. In 225 CE Alexander, on the advice of his mother, married Sallustia Orbiana. However, when the emperor’s wife began to win his favour, Julia Mamea, jealous of her influence over the young emperor, began a fight with her. First, it led to the conviction of her father, and later to the exile of the imperial wife to the provinces of Africa. According to Herodian, this was against the wishes of Alexander himself.

The emperor, gentle by nature, had no military experience and was clearly reluctant to war, but the attacks of the Persian Sassanids on the lands of the empire could not go unanswered. Alexander led the army that marched east from Antioch to Ctesiphon. Although he did not command them personally, he achieved a great triumph after his victory over the Persian king Ardashir I (Persian War 232-233 CE ). In the meantime, there was a rebellion at the front by Taurinus, who was proclaimed emperor by the Syrian legion. Alexander, however, quickly suppressed the rebellion, and Taurinus himself, trying to cross the Euphrates, drowned.

Soon after, a war broke out with the Germans, who in 234 CE crossed the Rhine and Danube, destroying the border forts. The legionaries serving under Alexander had extremely low morale, which was caused by the war with Persia and the loss of property on the borders of the Empire. During the war, the emperor made a fatal mistake: he took direct command of the soldiers who hated him, introducing strict discipline. Alexander tried to “play for time” before his faithful legions from the Persian War, richly enriched with booty, reached the Rhine and began to bargain with the Germans. The attempt to bribe the barbarians further undermined the emperor’s authority. The soldiers of the XXII Primigenia legion, seeing him as a weak person and unworthy of the emperor’s office, decided to kill him after an agreement with the barbarians.

Death

Alexander died on March 21, 235 CE. in Mainz (now Germany) at the hands of rebellious legionaries. The new emperor was Gaius Julius Verus, who went down in history under the name of Maximine Thrax. As the ancient sources mention, the new emperor was a man of enormous size for those conditions. Apparently, he had an unusually large forehead, nose and lower jaw, which could indicate an overgrowth. His thumb was reportedly so large that he wore his wife’s bracelet as a ring. According to “Historia Augusta”, it measured about 250 cm, which, however, should be considered one of the many luxuries of this ancient work. Certainly, however, he was a powerful man and in the eyes of the legionaries, he would prove himself better as emperor and leader of Rome.

Meaning

The death of Alexander, the last emperor of the Severus dynasty, opens the period of the great crisis of the Roman state. The lack of legitimacy of power among his successors was to cause constant military revolts and the handing over of purple to subsequent candidates. One of the reasons for this was the militarization of the empire, which Alexander’s more far-sighted advisers tried to prevent. From now on, the “first violin” in the election of the heirs to the throne was to be played by the military, which in various parts of the Empire chose local and distinguished commanders, sometimes against themselves.

The reign of Alexander also ends the period in the history of the empire known as the principate, when the emperor was among the senators as the first among equals (primus inter pares). Alexander Severus was therefore the last emperor who openly and sincerely adhered to the rules of governance invented by Octavian Augustus. The two-century process of strengthening the authority and scope of imperial power made emperors absolute rulers, whose main support was to be – in place of the senate – the army. The new phase in the development of the empire was called dominate (from the word dominus, meaning “lord”), although the victory of the new systemic concept was to take place after a crisis lasting almost a century.

Sources
  • Cary M., Scullard H. H., Dzieje Rzymu. Od czasów najdawniejszych do Konstantyna t. II, Warszawa 1992
  • Iwaszkiewicz Piotr, Łoś Wiesław, Stępień Marek, Władcy i wodzowie starożytności. Słownik, Warszawa 1998
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzowych Rzymu, Warszawa 2001
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004

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